Residing as one of the few superhero films to actually release in 2020, let alone one of the only big-budget features to grace the silver screen in a year of public uncertainty and unprecedented closures, the highly-anticipated sequel to 2017’s knock-out ‘Wonder Woman’ finally emerged as one of the more promising films from a mostly dismal year for blockbusters. Unfortunately, all that potential for “Wonder Woman 1984” (exclusively streaming now on HBO Max) to be just as show-stopping as its predecessor might have ultimately led to its downfall. While director Patty Jenkins and Warner Bros. succeeded in tossing up a gargantuan homage to the classic comic book films of the 1980s, its setting and convoluted premise offered only a fraction of the freshness and spectacle that earned Jenkins’ first feature such acclaim.
It would be difficult to call the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) a cohesive cinematic universe. Especially when you compare it to the likes of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s barely a comparison to be made other than the fact that both franchises feature a kaleidoscopic collection of iconic superheroes from the pages of comic books. Of course, my own bias towards the film franchise often comes into account when comparing the two cinematic worlds, the DCEU residing as a somewhat unstructured clump of mangled storytelling striving continuously to achieve what the MCU has. There have been plenty of notable installments to the franchise that I can’t simply gloss over, the most notable among them being 2017’s "Wonder Woman." While the DCEU, and to a certain extent the MCU as well, before 2017 were primarily dominated by male heroes like Tony Stark and Superman, the entrance of a powerhouse female-led comic book outing almost instantly made waves across the box office. The release of Patty Jenkins’ film starring actress Gal Gadot as the immortal Amazonian warrior was a godsend in some ways for the DC universe trying to build towards their Avengers-like team-up event in ‘Justice League’ that same year. While the latter would go on to become one of the more famously maligned entries of the DCEU, "Wonder Woman" held the top spot as one of the best solo superhero films of the past decade.
Despite the rocky direction of its cinematic universe up to this point, the critical and commercial acclaim of the first "Wonder Woman" film ultimately paved the way for an expectedly more glamorous sequel, one that pitched its titular heroine into a whole new era of dangerous intrigue and far more ambitious antagonists. While the 2017 film saw Gadot’s Diana Prince traversing no man’s land in an effort to sway the tide of the first World War, "Wonder Woman 1984" found her fending off zealous politicians in a decade of emerging technologies and global enterprise. Entering a world where the lines between good and evil aren’t nearly as transparent, Diana’s personal struggles with loss and regret collided with a dazzling world of innovation, greed and instant gratification. That new landscape offered the perfect place to explore not only Diana’s own desires in seeing her love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) once again following his demise in the first film, but also the personal desires of the film’s antagonists including Pedro Pascal’s conniving oil tycoon Maxwell Lord and Kristen Wiig’s insecure geologist Barbara Minerva.
Unfortunately, with as vibrant a setting as "Wonder Woman 1984" had and a duo of devious villains at its disposal, things quickly went awry not only in the events of the film, but for the film itself. After an enjoyable action sequence that saw Wonder Woman thwart the scheme of a crew of robbers at a local mall, Gadot’s heroine almost immediately took a backseat to the introductions of Lord and Minerva. As Lord strives to assert control over the global oil industry for his own personal gain, his path collides with Minerva as she seeks to become more like the outgoing hero Diana embodies. Their desires are met by the aptly named “Dreamstone,” an object that grants wishes to whoever holds it but enacts an equally weighted toll. Without giving too much of the plot away, events ensue that pit Diana against Lord and eventually Minerva as they use the stone to their individual advantages. While Diana’s own desires are explored, as her escapades as Wonder Woman continue, the sequel spent much of its runtime plotting out Pascal’s maniacal villain and his unsurprising motivations towards achieving global power. Despite briefly playing at the heartstrings with Diana and Steve’s peculiar rekindling, the film pivoted ever closer to a predictable premise as it focused more and more on Lord and his machinations. Wiig’s entry as the vengeful Barbara Minerva, while a bit more believable a performance than Pascal’s hammy tycoon, offered only a brief reprieve from the uninspired storyline unfolding.
Despite the film’s plot derailing from its focus on the titular character in favor of spelling out the evil plan of a lackluster megalomaniac, the performances of the film might have been one of the sequel’s few saving graces. Settling into the campy 1980s superhero tone of the film fairly quickly, Pascal and Wiig performed their roles to a satisfying yet limited tee, showcasing different sides of each actor’s respective skills as a performer. As for Gal Gadot’s Diana, the actress still managed to embody the heroine’s imposing stature along with her wide-eyed curiosity of the ever-changing world around her. It’s just a pity the film didn’t give the character much to do other than react almost unemotionally to the events unfolding around her. While there were moments of genuine emotional breakthrough and startling revelation, it appeared as if Gadot didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the role this time around as she has in the past.
For all its escapist appeal and glitzy action sequences, "Wonder Woman 1984" severely paled in comparison to not only its bold predecessor, but also a handful of other far more compelling and rewarding comic book films before it. With a premise bogged down by dubious political machinations, off-kilter story moves and a tiresome runtime, the film ultimately lacked the confidence and wonderment that ushered its Amazonian goddess onto the big screen in the first place.
"Wonder Woman 1984" is now streaming exclusively on HBO Max, with a limited theater release. The film will be available on the streaming service at no additional cost to subscribers for 31 days before a wider theatrical release in 2021.